There is not much to recommend the soft left, a place largely defined by equivocation, as a political home, but it’s mine, and if you’re reading this in Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy, there’s a good chance that it is yours too. In as much as the soft left is more than just the ideal place for soft right types to spend the Corbyn years uncontroversially hiding out, cicada like, before emerging as Starmerite PPCs, it is, as I have written elsewhere, the Labour left’s ‘yes, but’ faction. To be on the soft left is to be a fairly consistent but ultimately unreliable vote for the party’s left; it is a position that leaves one with few allies, and it is worth us thinking about who those are, and why.
One useful device through which to think about this comes in the form of Michael Chessum’s new book. Chessum is probably best known as the public face of Another Europe is Possible, the left wing anti-Brexit group, and his book – This Is Only The Beginning: The Making of a New Left, from Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn – is an account of his decade on the left, first as a key player in the student anti-fees demonstrations in 2010, and then up through the early days of Corbynism and into the bitter rancour of the post-Brexit Labour Party. A member of Momentum’s first steering committee and general figure in the rooms where it happened, Chessum is an able guide through the tumultuous period covered by the book.
There is a whole slew of Corbyn-years post-mortems recently written or about to come out. Chessum’s will probably rank amongst the better of these for a number of reasons. He is a good writer. This is far from a guarantee, and no amount of political righteousness can save a book from bad writing, as anyone who read Ali Milani’s recent offering will know. Chessum spends as much time talking about the student movement and the vibrant world of resistance to austerity in the early part of the decade as he does the higher political affairs of its closing years, while still relating the two sections with clarity and coherence. ‘It all started at Millbank’ is the nascent cliché of the Corbynite post-mortem, but this is probably as good an ‘it all started at Millbank’ book as you will get. If you want that, buy this.
Chessum is keen to state that he personally has never been a member of a Trotskyist organisation; he is open(ish), however, about the fact that a great many of the people he organises and finds common political cause with are. Members of the Alliance of Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and Workers’ Power, two of the going concerns in contemporary British Trotskyism, crop up throughout the book, sometimes credited as such and sometimes not. We have ideas about politics in the UK as being something that fundamentally tacks to the centre, stuck to the two viable parties of government. As a result of this no serious people, so the logic goes, take more radical ideas to heart, and involvement in groups beyond the conventional world of parliamentary democracy is usually treated as, as Chessum puts it, ‘youthful dalliance’. This isn’t the case, and to view things as such will limit your understanding of politics.
Fundamentally, to be interested in Paul Mason – quoted heavily in this book – as a political commentator (as, demonstrably, many mainstream news outlets are) is to be interested in Workers’ Power, of which he was a committed member for two decades; to be interested in the policy produced by Munira Mirza is to be interested in the Revolutionary Communist Party; to be interested in the actions of NCAFC (the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) is to be interested in the AWL. A recent paper given at the Mile End Institute’s conference by Daniel Frost asserted that dedication to Labourism has had a chilling effect on the writing of contemporary British history, a criticism largely framed with Renewal as the voice of social democratic conformity. There is probably something in this; however, to boldly claim to speak on behalf of the voice of social democratic conformity, one of the things that does commend the soft left is a more sincere commitment to pluralism in the Labour Party; and to an attempt at a broader understanding of the utilities and possibilities of politics. Much of Chessum’s book would have either the right of the party, or the more orthodox left, reaching for the big button marked ‘compliance’; this, among other things, makes it something the soft left should read with interest.
These are interesting matters to discuss now, in part because there is less heat in them. The positions of anyone who considers themselves in any way on the left of the Labour party should be clear, particularly in relation to the current leadership; the conditions of intra-left conflict that made Michael Chessum, in his own words, a figure of ‘genuine hate’ have faded away. Consider for example the recent wave of RMT strikes; you find Chessum and people in his political sphere (those around the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, Another Europe Is Possible, and MPs like Clive Lewis and Nadia Whittome, and to a degree Novara) – correctly – offering complete support to a union whose deputy general secretary spoke about Chessum as having ‘pockets full of Soros money’.
There is not some straight line from left to right within Labour politics. If you walk left from Renewal, you probably end up with Chessum and, after that, the revolutionary Trotskyists. If you walk left from Labour First and the ‘old right’, you get to Tribune and, after that, the SWP. Nominally you might be able to segment these stages as Nandy voter, Long Bailey voter, member of a proscribed organisation, and assume that the vertical has more in common with the horizontal. This is not necessarily the case; there is value to a shared plain, if not a precisely shared position.
I appreciate that some might read Chessum’s book for Labour Kremlinology rather than as a tool to reflect on cross-factional allegiance in the post-Corbyn world. On that front, one finds various people saying what one would expect them to say (Clive Lewis is heavily quoted, at one point offering an assessment of Corbynism as having ‘made a pact with a section of the trade union bureaucracy’: ‘and they basically said, yeah sure, we’ll bail you out, but you need to kill this whole new left thing’). Perhaps the most interesting figure quoted at some length is John McDonnell; interesting both for what he says, and the fact that he is saying it in this book. The former Shadow Chancellor talks about his disagreements with the broader leadership over how to structure Momentum, saying that he wanted to preserve ‘social movements’ while others in the leader’s office ‘were keen on a more traditional approach’. There is a certain strand of thinking on the Labour left, probably best exemplified in Oliver Eagleton’s The Starmer Project, which I generally term ‘John McDonnell betrayed the project-ism’. This being the belief that McDonnell sold out the true promise of Corbynism by pressing for a second referendum in 2019, and by doing it with people like Chessum. If you think this, Chessum’s book hands you much material to use in vindication of your own position. If you think this is something you only think if the factional brain worms have eaten away at your ability to read anything in good faith, McDonnell is an insightful presence in this book.
The longer-term effects of the Corbyn era in British politics will begin to make themselves known in the years to come, and Chessum’s book serves as an interesting companion piece to James Schneider’s recent work on the future of the British left, Our Bloc. In some ways they are very similar – both focus on extra-parliamentary politics, and Schneider crops up as an interviewee in This Is Only The Beginning – but while Schneider is primarily interested in power, and thinks we should be building coalitions to take it and create change, a core theme of Chessum’s book is the search for agency. ‘The place where left wing activists have most agency is at the lowest levels’, he writes. ‘So much of history is made in the cracks between great events’. Chessum writes about his time in higher politics with marked ambivalence, but reflects that ‘maybe the most important thing I will ever do was, at age 20, helping to set up NCAFC’. One of the dangers of books like these where people interview their social circles and reflect on their youth is that personal feeling and nostalgia become soaked into and warp political critique; one senses, somewhat, that this may be the case here. Nonetheless, this melioristic belief in grassroots politics as a site of meaningful change and agency is one I admire. I can see, however, why the person interested in agency spent a decade losing to the people interested in power.